Thursday, January 25, 2007

Taylor Branch on Johnson

One last piece from Taylor Branch's Pillar of Fire before I leave it. One of the most fascinating characters in the book is Lyndon Johnson, whose unexpected support for the civil rights movement was a huge factor in its success. If you've ever read anything about Johnson, or heard any of the astonishing White House tapes from his administration, you've probably come across stories like this one:
Johnson himself was a gadget person, but he preferred earthier uses: high-powered showerheads, special blades to cut thick steaks into the shape of Texas, an amphibious jeep that he loved to drive into his lake by "mistake" with unwitting passengers, and, mounted on his Lincoln touring convertible, a horn whose sounds stimulated the mating instincts of nearby cattle, producing sights that mortified those whom Johnson gleefully called "citified" guests.

And then there are stories of Johnson the master politician and manipulator, using his charisma, power, and understanding of people to get exactly what he wants:
The President announced on the way that he wanted [Sargent] Shriver to launch his new war on poverty.

Shriver replied nervously that he remembered reading in Pakistan or somewhere that Johnson had mentioned poverty in a speech, but he was sure the President could find someone better qualified. Besides, he was more than occupied as Director of the Peace Corps. Johnson said Shriver could run the Peace Corps and poverty at the same time, and Shriver escaped with a promise to consider the flattering proposal. Not knowing Johnson, he assumed the next move was his.

The next day, Saturday, February 1, a White House operator startled Shriver at home, and Johnson's voice came on the line: "I'm gonna announce your appointment at the press conference."

"What press conference?" asked Shriver.

"This afternoon," said Johnson.

"Oh, God," whispered Shriver, who began sputtering that he knew nothing about poverty. Johnson brushed him off. "You can't let me down," he said, "so the quicker we get it behind us the better." Shriver in full panic waved silently for his family to prompt him with excuses. "Could you just say that you've asked me to study this?" he suggested to Johnson, who said, "No, hell no." When Shriver begged politely for time--"I must say that I would prever it if I had forty-eight hours"--he got back a resounding preview of the morning headlines: "You're Mister Poverty."

"You got the responsibility," Johnson told him. "You've got the authority. You got the power. You got the money. Now, you may not have the glands."

"The glands?" asked Shriver.

"Yeah," said the President.

"I've got plenty of glands," said Shriver.

As with TR, the more I learn about Johnson the more I want to know. I going to have to read Robert Caro's biography after all. For now though, I want to end with one last exhortation, echoing what I said at the start of the week: read Taylor Branch's America in the King Years. I still have one volume to go, and it's already the best history writing I've ever read.

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